Simply put, coercion is when someone uses threats to force or intimidate you into doing something. In a workplace, coercion can be considered a form of harassment, or even violence. While some forms of coercion are overt, others are subtle and nuanced, which makes it an even greater challenge to identify and deal with them.
Overt Coercive Behavior
Overt coercive behavior is an out-right and unmistakable threat that can be legally actionable. For example, if your male supervisor tells you that if you want a raise, you must sleep with him, that is an overt coercive behavior, as well as a form of sexual harassment. If this happens to you, you must immediately document it and take the matter to a human resources representative. If you work in a small business, and your immediate supervisor is the business owner, document the exchange, make note of witnesses, and contact an employment law attorney for guidance on how to proceed. Even if you don't want to take legal action, a legal professional can advise you on your rights and give you coping strategies for dealing with the offender in the workplace.
Subtle Coercive Behavior
Subtle, coercive behavior is tricky, because it's difficult to pinpoint. For example, if your boss wants you to work overtime or weekends, the request may be framed in such a way that it feels like a mandate you can’t refuse. For example, “I'm going to give you the opportunity to help out around here to see if you’re management material.” You can take this comment in many ways, wondering if you are being asked or ordered, and trying to figure out if working overtime and weekends is an absolute condition for getting a promotion.
If you feel you're being subtly coerced, have a frank discussion with your manager. Ask, “Are you offering me a choice, or giving me job instructions?” You can also turn the tables and say to your manager, “Tell me if I’m hearing this correctly. If I want to be considered for a promotion, I have to put in significant overtime, correct?” Your manager may back off if she senses you’re aware of her coercive techniques, particularly if she doesn’t plan to back up veiled threats, and if not, at least you'll have a better understanding of where you stand. Of course, businesses do sometimes need people to go above and beyond the usual, but if you don't feel you're being treated equitably, consult your human resources representative and discuss your job description to clarify your role and responsibilities.
Avoid Being Coercive
If you're a manager, you obviously want to get the highest possible levels of performance from your employees. Doing this in an aggressive, coercive manner can decrease, rather than increase, morale and can potentially contribute to a hostile, negative workplace environment. Encourage, rather than demand, and be direct in issuing orders or asking for help. It's one thing to let employees know that a team effort and above-and-beyond contributions better position them for leadership roles and pay increases, but it's another to demand an employee work extra hours with a veiled threat of non-promotion or termination.
- California State University San Bernadino; The Extraction of Work Effort; Coercion and Consent
- Montana Tech: Workplace Violence
- Columbia Journal of Gender and Law; Criminalizing Coerced Submission in the Workplace and in the Academy; Michal Buchhandler-Raphael
- United States Equal Opportunity Commission: Facts About Retaliation
- Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images